Bill Brown – Thing Theory

  • Brown begins by romanticizing materiality, calling attention to the ways that things provide us with things outside of discursivity.  He then notes, however, that things – though commonsensical – actually pose a problem because of “the specific unspecificisty that “things” denotes” (3).  And things aren’t objects.  In fact, Brown notes that things might still be dancing across the ballroom of philosophy long after subject and object are gone (4).
  • Brown notes that in life as in critique we often look through objects to see what they disclose about ourselves vis-a-vis history, society, nature, culture – but we rarely ever catch a glimps of things (5).  Brown also notes that things are something akin to Latour’s Black Boxes (Science in Action) : they don’t appear until they stop working for us – when the “circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily” (5).
  • Things: are they they amorphousness out of which objects are made material by the subject (that is informed by previous datum about subjuect-object interactions)?  Are they what is excessive in objects that exceeds their materiality or utility – the metaphysical, sensuous extra for which objects are fetishisized?  B. claims they are both – latent qualia and excessive irreducibility (6).
  • On 6, B. claims that thing theory seems like an oxymoron because things seem to reside both at hand and somewhere outside the theoretical field – in other words, outside the capabilities of hermeneutics.  In this sense, things are an important place to consider the work of empirics (6).
  • Brown’s work has resonances with the relational philosophy of Whitehead and later Deleuze/Guattari.  He notes that:  “These are questions that ask less about the material effects of ideas and ideology than about the ideological and ideational effects of the material world and of transformations of it.  They are questions that ask not whether things are but what work they perform [Whitehead/D&G/Serres on a philosophy of processes/becoming rather than subjects/objects – a philosophy of prepositions] – questions, in fact, not about things themselves but about the subject-object relation in particular temporal and spatial contexts” (7).
  • Brown tips the hat to Latour, citing his rejection of the subject/object dichotomy in favor of “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects” (13).
  • What’s the difference between objectivity and materiality?  Brown equates objectivity to perception and materiality to sensation.  Examples:  Objects include a fan, a Fudgsicle, a sink.  Materials include the canvas, the plaster of paris, the vinyl.  What of the materiality of interfaces, I wonder?  (15)
  • Brown notes that in Benjamin’s work in the 20s, film moved objects into actions – they moved.  New media extends this by mediating the relation between people and objects – approximating distance and proximity (17).

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